The rights and plight of workers pervade the sprawling main exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale. The artworks inside the imposing white central pavilion and the medieval dockyard buildings include US photographer Walker Evans’s images of poverty-stricken farmers in Great Depression-era southern Alabama and a huge banner by an artist activists’ coalition, Gulf Labour, about the exploitation of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates. The legacy of Marxism looms large with live recital of all three volumes of Das Kapital, directed by British artist-film-maker Isaac Julien, for the duration of the event.
Perhaps the most affecting work to take on these themes is by the British artistJeremy Deller, who delves into Britain’s industrial heritage to explore the emergence of the urban working class and its impact on society and culture. His room in the main pavilion is, as you’d expect from an artist who had a mural of a colossal William Morris sinking an oligarch’s yacht at the last biennale, playful as well as political. On one wall is a series of Victorian photographs of anonymous female ironworkers from south Wales, who look startled and exhausted after a day’s work of breaking rocks, entitled The Shit Old Days. The title refers to a BBC light entertainment show called The Good Old Days. “It was about Victoriana and music halls but a very rosy version of it,” Deller recalls. “That’s what we’re good at doing in Britain, mythologising things. They weren’t really the good old days, they were the shit old days.”
Deller further punctures Victorian nostalgia by inviting comparison between the harsh conditions of 19th century labourers and controversial contemporary working practices that dehumanise workers in different ways, such as zero-hours contracts and workplace surveillance. On the same wall as the anthropological photographs of the Welsh women is a mannequin arm bearing a Motorola WT4000 tracking device like those used in Amazon warehouses to monitor the speed and efficiency of workers, which delivers warning messages if they are falling behind schedule. Hanging from the ceiling is a large black banner embroidered with a text message sent to alert zero-hours workers that their services are not required: “Hello, today you have day off”.
“For anyone who’s a native English speaker you’d find that phrase quite unusual,” Deller says. “It’s sort of insulting really to tell someone that they’re not working that day, they won’t be earning money that day, and calling it a day off and not in correct English.” The piece, which evokes trade union banners, conveys the casualisation and globalisation of labour. Deller notes: “That message might not even have been sent from England. It might have been sent by a company in France or China.”
Deller also continues his exploration of the relationship between working class life and music culture. Among his best-known works is Acid Brass (1997), in which a Stockport brass band performed acid house and Detroit techno tracks. The artist, who won the Turner Prize in 2004, represented Britain in the previous Venice Biennale in 2013 with a pavilion called English Magic, which included a film featuring steel bands playing Vaughan Williams and acid house, as well as images of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour in the UK in 1972-73 alongside photographs of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This year’s Venice work draws from his exhibition called All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (the title derives from a passage in the Communist Manifesto) that toured the north of England in 2013-14, and featured family trees of musicians that found the ancestors of Bryan Ferry, Noddy Holder and Shaun Ryder included a blacksmith, a button filer and a clogger’s apprentice.
Another piece on this theme is a gleaming blue and chrome vintage jukebox, set against the backdrop of a blazing mural that resembles the mouth of a furnace, entitled Factory Records. But the 7-inch vinyl singles in its collection are not songs from the defunct Manchester record label. Instead, listeners’ ears are assaulted by a cacophony of industrial noise – recordings of ambient sounds from factories. The grinding, crunching and clattering of machinery evokes the deafening conditions workers endured, which, Deller notes, must have been a shock to the emerging class of urban industrial workers, many of whom had previously lived and worked in the countryside. A three-piece band will do an improvised performance, based on the recordings, at the Barbican later this month.
The most effective insight into the lives of this industrial working class is aperformance of broadside ballads, curated by Deller, in the central pavilion’s new performance space. The artist selected several songs discovered and researched by singer Jennifer Reid in Chetham’s Library in Manchester – the oldest surviving public library in Britain. The ballads were originally sung in pubs and on the streets to entertain factory workers after a hard day’s graft. One called The Little Piecer tells the story of children toiling in the mines and the toll this took on their health: “I often hurt my little hands and make my tender fingers bleed/When piecing threads and sopping flies and I thought was hard indeed/Oh master do you know the half that we endure to get you gold/Your heart might tremble for the day when that sad tale must be told.” But not all the broadside ballads were a social critique; some as Deller observes were “raw and rude”. The bawdy The New Bury Loom uses the language of weaving to describe a lusty encounter: “My shuttle ran well in her lathe/My treadle it did up and down/My level stood next to her breast beam/The time I was squaring her loom.” Chetham librarian, Michael Powell, says: “It’s almost like Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-ling in that it’s all innuendo.”
While the biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, has been criticised as hectoring and didactic, Deller has won praise for humanising his politics through the broadside ballards. Deller sees their legacy in the observational commentary and humour of popular music, from punk, such as performance poet John Cooper Clarke, to rap and hip-hop.
“The story of Britain since the 50s is one of a country losing its industrial base, its imperial base and how badly, or how well, we dealt with that,” he says. “What’s filled the gap? You could argue entertainment. The entertainment industry … has given us a profile in the world that’s so much bigger than our economic profile. It’s how we find ourselves through entertainment, not industry. It’s how we’ve replaced the huge hole in our national identity.”
The earliest surviving broadside ballads date back to the early 16th century. They were printed cheaply on a single side of paper, which contained lyrics, tunes and woodcut illustrations, as well as news, prophecy, political or religious messages, satire and comedy.
The broadsides reached the peak of their popularity in the early to mid 17th century, with hundreds of thousands sold annually. Costing as little as a penny, they reached a wide audience and were usually sung in pubs. Little is known about who composed or performed them, although we know there were professional ballad singers until the late 19th century, and they were particularly popular among Irish immigrant communities.
Powell says: “A specific form developed in industrial centres. In the 19th century you get a shift towards the ballad being a comment on local or national events or on [social] changes. They’re often trying to come to terms with a shift in places like Manchester from being big villages to [becoming] cities.”
These broadsides often reflected the experience of people moving from the countryside to a new life in the growing industrial centres. Some tell of the harsh working conditions and miserable lives endured by this growing urban working class misery. There were ballads about mining disasters and factory accidents. Others focused on changes in culture and society. Many of these songs were humorous, and often bawdy, offering listeners light relief from their daily toil, or a satirical take on their circumstances.
One called A Prophecy for 1973 imagines a future utopia wihout poverty and hunger, which seems as distant today as in 1873 when it was probably composed.
Many examples of broadside ballads can be found on online archives compiled by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford and the English Broadside Ballad Archive based in the Early Modern Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.